Instant MessagingJohn Haber
in New York City
Conceptual art is the most reticent of art forms, and Lawrence Weiner is the most reticent of conceptual artists. What then accounts for the impression one gets coming off the Whitney's elevators? Two walls curve forward, pressing themselves and the words right in one's face. More text flies past the eye in every direction.
The Whitney calls its retrospective "As Far as the Eye Can See," but how far can one see in a museum? Maybe further than one thought. If one truly knows anything about Weiner, it turns out, one knows that one will not know it afterward.
Words, words, words
One may think of Weiner as predictable. I have often seen one of his gnomic texts, shrugged, and moved on. As Hamlet says when asked what he is reading, "Words, words, words."
Some will feel that way about the whole show. Pretty much anything on view could date to any time in the last forty years. After all, conceptual art is a fact, not a medium, by definition. How can a fact develop over time?
In practice, however, the show adds up to a surfeit of sensation. It may not take long to absorb it all, but only because it assaults the viewer almost all at once. And that, too, says something about the very idea of conceptual art. Again by definition, one cannot predict anything—not the shape and color of the work, its placement, or even whether it will get made. Then again, Hamlet, too, has some interesting things to say, and he dies in a fight scene.
Weiner works with language and not with what one may think of as art objects. A slyer conceptual artist, Barbara Bloom, leaves much of her text to wall labels, next to the loveliest or stoniest of art objects. Weiner stencils big sans serif letters directly on museum, received forms that may seem to eliminate the medium and to insist on the message. They belong to commerce or telegraphy more than to art.
Even when they form sentences, the block capitals and lack of punctuation deny a point of origin or an ending. They could have begun somewhere else entirely—apart from the artist, somewhere unseen. Critics often associate Weiner with installation art or Minimalism. Both imply a specific encounter in space and time, between the viewer and the art. Not here. As he puts it himself, "the work need not be built."
When it is built, however, one sure notices. The installation includes walls jam-packed with posters, busy display cases for other exhibition records, and a hot-pink stain on that beautiful Marcel Breuer stone floor. A shotgun blast has torn into the Sheetrock and riddled it with holes. Elsewhere Weiner rips plasterboard away by hand, leaving a precise but lumpy square of gypsum.
Word and object
The more one reads the text, the more it, too, carries physical weight. When he lists "the weight of it all / the length of it all / the breadth of it all / the sound of it all / the smell of it all," Weiner evokes sensual overload. When he writes "encased by + reduced to rust," he could be describing steel in the hands of Richard Serra. When he imagines "a cup of sea water poured upon the floor," one can almost taste the salt. When he asks one to imagine unstated things "in the heat of the day" and "in the heat of the night," they sizzle.
One of the largest works insists on cumulative physical encounters. It starts "some stone to stand on / some stone to hold / some stone to throw." It repeats the triad like stanzas in a poem—but with stone replaced in turn by wood, glass, steel, gold, earth, coal, salt, lead, ashes, rubber, and hemp. They suggest not just different materials but different sensations of hard and soft, hot and cold, solidity and decay.
The tall, narrow wall of black text itself mimes a physical pile. Elsewhere a large stone fragment rests on an ungainly wood creation, somewhere between a tabletop and scaffolding. It defies one to see which most closely resembles the monument or the pedestal.
The appearance of the work also veers ambiguously between language and object. I quote it throughout without Weiner's ever-present capital letters just to keep it from overwhelming a review. The artist may use deletion symbols or parentheses to suggest emptiness or formal elements in a mathematical equation. They could serve as variables that each viewer may insert at will. They also bring out how deliberately clunky the lettering can look. He writes the thoughts to place in the heat of the day as ( ) + ( ), and he circles the word placed.
The installation also has one piecing together word and object—or what a Structuralist would call sign and signified. One might be scrambling around to locate the wall label, much less to match it to the art. One might be staring at that red stain on the floor and text about seawater on the wall. Did the execution of the work come out wrong, or did pouring water do something unforeseen? That question takes one back to something else one knows about Weiner: "the work may not be built."
The curators, Donna de Salvo and Ann Goldstein, make a point of the work's status as conceptual art. Says de Salvo, it means "jettisoning the most fundamental notions about the art object and its dissemination." That is not the same, however, as jettisoning the art object.
Conceptual art as object
Perhaps conceptual art never has to try. Think of the mammoth slab covered with black scribbles and erected for Sol LeWitt after his death, the bound volumes photographed by Mickey Smith, or the maze of words by Joseph Kosuth. Weiner himself started way back in 1965 by removing a corner from otherwise flat monochrome paintings. Like the text, one can interpret the Removal Paintings as object or absence, shaped canvas or defiantly plain and conceptual. Still, one need not label LeWitt a conceptual artist. One definitely need not call Weiner's early paintings conceptual art, and something did change when he turned to words.
Look more carefully at his "statement of intent" of January 1969:
1. The artist may construct the work
It does matter whether the work is built. It matters a great deal. The point is that each remains possible.
Each also represents a choice and a responsibility—but whose? One could interpret his texts as instructions by the artist or to the artist, to the curator, to the viewer, or to the art. In the same way, the walls curving toward and away from the elevators may confront one, but they never surround one. They open pathways and sightlines to the art. They open possibilities, even if it takes a loaded shotgun to carry them out.
The possibilities include the execution, the installation, repetition, and dissemination. All this visual overload arises from each point in the chain. It includes the retrospective's next stop, at MOCA in Los Angeles, where it will have more space. Will that relieve the crowding or add additional possibilities? Probably a little of both, although I like Weiner more for the mess in New York. Besides, it seems to suit the city.
The possibilities also include the chain of language, the way words lead to and take sense from other words. That lesson, too, might come from Structuralism or later philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida. It identifies text and art alike with an open chain, beyond the fixed moment of words spoken aloud. One work embodies that chain in a sequence of manhole covers, "in direct line with another and the next." The simultaneity with which words assault one coming off the elevator implies much the same thing. The work that lends its title to the retrospective describes its ambitions—"as far as the eye can see."
Derrida would have approved, but the text goes in for plain old puns as well, in a very home-grown idiom. As Roberta Smith has noted in The Times, "reduced to rust" hints at "reduced to dust." The show's title may echo the idiom "as far as I can see." Does that imply an overbearing or an absent creator? Weiner gets to play both.
Art in use
Born in 1942, the artist grew up in the Bronx and attended Stuyvesant High School, the selective public school. (So, on both scores, did my grandfather many years before.) From there he hitchhiked across country, touched base in Canada, and landed in San Francisco. Before long he returned to Greenwich Village. These days he "divides his time between New York City and a boat in Amsterdam." I can picture him always in transit, like John Barth in the novel The Floating Opera or Robert Smithson on The Floating Island—or like the dissemination of the work.
Weiner's history anticipates the poles of his art, right down to the mathematical symbols. It draws on the rigor of his education and the free play of the Beats. One might call it language poetry, but without the chaotic rush of words unmoored from their ordinary sense. The old posters and exhibition announcements recall the spontaneity of 1960s. The smooth, sharp black or red outline of his letters goes a long way to tidy up Jack Kerouac's teletype scroll and beat-up typewriter.
One might compare his allusive brevity to a haiku or Zen koan. Yet it has none of their reaching for profundity or authority, none of their desire to slip into one's consciousness and out of time. One might think of the visual clarity or modesty of William Carlos Williams, the poet of "this is just to say." Weiner, though, never turns away from the museum and toward nature. I cannot imagine him, like Williams, seeking "no ideas but the thing itself." He comes closest to the slow, patient accumulation of epigrams in Ludwig Wittgenstein or Wallace Stevens, perhaps the most poetic of philosophers or the most philosophical of poets.
One should not even call it painting with words. When On Karawa paints the date, he leaves nothing to chance, and he roots the work in his life, apart from the viewer's, like a diary. When younger artists like Christopher Wool or Richard Prince set words to canvas, they take aggressive, nasty jokes out of mass culture and turn them into aggressive, nasty jokes about art. They also make them difficult to read, by gaps, drips, omissions, and odd breaks across the edge of the picture. They are making art about art—and about the seamy side of American life. By comparison, Weiner is making art about possibility itself.
With Weiner, a lot goes a long way. Just as text enters into the chain of language, art enters into a tradition and a world already in progress. A philosopher has compared knowledge to the complete reconstruction of a ship, plank by plank and beam by beam, while at sea. One work reads "a square removal from a rug in use." Somehow, the square has to come out while in use, while people are walking.
Weiner seems no less conceptual now, no less an assault on expression or formalism, but also much less dry. His fixed messages have none of the variability of, say, Jenny Holzer with her crawl screens and blacked-out text paintings. One may still find him deadly dull. I may next time myself. However, that, too, stands as only a possibility or a choice. It, too, "rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership."
"Lawrence Weiner: As Far as the Eye Can See" ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through February 10, 2008.